September marked a dramatic new chapter for beleaguered
smartphone and tablet maker BlackBerry with a trio of major announcements. The
first announcement provided confirmation that the long-rumored clients for
BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) for Android and iOS were finally being released. The
latter two were less positive, revealing deep losses and a plan to lay off
nearly a third of its workforce, followed by plans to sell itself and go
These are obvious and painful admissions that the company’s
last best effort, a revised smartphone OS and new hardware, failed to generate
public or enterprise excitement. The company took a major and long-overdue
gamble but offered too little innovation compared to leaders Android and iOS, and they released the device they should have released four years ago in order to
stay relevant. So, what’s next for one of the few remaining integrated mobile hardware
and software platform manufacturers and former industry leader?
Releasing BBM on Android and iOS has some people predicting that a
leaner BlackBerry could adopt Android, offer a few customized enhancements, and
regain some traction in the consumer market. While this is possible, being an Android hardware manufacturer not named Samsung is becoming
a difficult proposition, and the hardware BlackBerry brought to the table with
BB10 had little to differentiate it from a sea of competing Android tablets and
smartphones. Even the physical keyboard, a source of pride and
differentiation for BlackBerry, seems to have been panned by the market, making
a keyboard-equipped AndroidBerry a niche product.
Another option many people are suggesting for BlackBerry would be
abandoning the hardware business and focusing solely on software and services.
The BBM release points at an attempt to do so on the consumer end, while a
transition of BlackBerry Enterprise Server to a device-agnostic Mobile Device
Management (MDM) platform points to a similar move in the enterprise space.
BlackBerry has obvious historical roots in the enterprise,
but many CIOs and IT leaders I’ve spoken to are nonplussed by BlackBerry’s
promises to the enterprise, after several years of ignoring that market in
favor of the consumer space. BlackBerry also lacks the broad, integrated MDM
tools of the larger players, plus internal restructuring and frequent shifts in
focus don’t bode well for being able to deliver them in a market with rapidly
evolving competition. While BlackBerry once ruled the enterprise, it has
largely ceded the device front and now faces a variety of large and upstart
competitors in the MDM market it largely defined.
For longtime BlackBerry followers, the least savory outcome
of a BlackBerry buyout is that the company becomes a licensing and technology
holding company, generating cash from its huge trove of patents but largely
bowing out of the race to build new devices and services. With little to offer
in terms of new hardware and software, a BlackBerry that’s essentially a patent
holding company, with a few dozen employees biased strongly toward lawyers
rather than engineers, makes for an attractive buyout for what appears to be a
financial services firm rather than a technology or turnaround company.
For consumers and IT leaders, a resurgent Blackberry offered one more competitor in a Google/Apple-dominated mobile ecosystem. Unfortunately for BlackBerry,
the delicate balance between releasing a half-baked device too early and
missing a market opportunity seems to have become unhinged, with BB10 and the
associated devices failing to make a noticeable impact on the market. Even BBM,
once the envy of non-BlackBerry owners everywhere, is now entering a field
crowded with enhanced messaging services. These signs point to BlackBerry
becoming a technology holding company rather than a trendsetter, which is an unfortunate
outcome for a company that defined enterprise-class mobile devices.